“I know it when I see it,” was the phrase used by Potter Stewart, a United States Supreme Court Justice, when in 1964 he gave his ruling on what constituted a sufficient level of obscenity in films to breach constitutional free speech provisions. His point is a logical one: in life, some moments need to be observed to appreciate what is happening, for they are hard to quantify. Take when a Test Match is drifting. As with many facets of our game, there isn’t a neat statistical category that denotes when this is occurring. You know it when you see it.
When England’s chase of a most unlikely 359 started in predictably troubling fashion, losing both openers when the score was 15 just after lunch, every sign pointed towards a facsimile of the day before. Maybe not as dramatic as 67 all-out, but we’ve all seen the work of demoralised teams resigned to their fate. In this case, blowing their chance at regaining the Ashes, as they effective did in the first innings.
From the moment Joe Denly walked out at number four, he looked a second away from becoming Australia’s third victim in a hurry. Off the mark via an edge when trying to leave the ball, he was beaten routinely, smashed on the badge of the helmet by Pat Cummins when trying to leave a bouncer, nearly out leg before off the bicep and cut in half twice. When the openers took a break, James Pattinson’s short ball was ever so close to being fended to gully the Headingley crowd got it, cheering ironically when he passed 12, his team-high score on Friday.
But by doing what nobody could the first time around – absorbing the worst the visitors could throw at him without giving up his wicket – Denly changed the afternoon. Very quickly, he wasn’t just a wicket the Australian bowlers needed, but one they felt they had earned several times over. With Joe Root again looking the class player that he is, the atmospherics changed. Those signs of drift arrived in the hour before the tea break and into the final hour of the day’s play.
Nathan Lyon’s economy rate at Lord’s reflected the fact that he wasn’t at his best. Forever a confidence player, the rule of thumb with the prolific off-spinner is when he is giving up runs, he isn’t taking wickets. Since pulling even with Dennis Lillee as Australia’s third-highest Test wicket-taker on the opening day at HQ, he hasn’t added to his tally. That he didn’t send down a maiden until his 15th over was also without precedent since way back in 2014. It was he who Root dispatched from the first ball after tea and then again with consecutive boundaries to bring up his half-century. The local lad was bringing Leeds alive.
Misfields banked up too – Usman Khawaja early, Matthew Wade later. Tim Paine wasn’t able to glove a Lyon delivery that kept low and Denly ran past. Funky fields featured, Cummins immediately employing a leg slip when returning for a burst after tea, before removing him four balls later. Frustrated chat from the bowlers was audible and visible, Josh Hazlewood giving Denly a piece of his mind when beating him twice in a row as the clock struck 6pm. The morning before, everything was hitting the edge and landing with a catcher. Now, seemed to be.
Appeals became more frequent and frantic, Pattinson pleading early for decisions that were never going his way; Umpire Gaffaney giving Root leg before on 59 from a ball that was never hitting – and smashed the inside edge. Lyon gave it his Jazz Hands ask twice in one over against Denly after the Kent veteran passed 50, the second of which wasted a review when Paine took it upstairs. The man least likely wasn’t going to do something remarkable and go on to post an Ashes ton, was he?
No, he wasn’t. Enter Hazlewood. The over after Lyon’s grilling of his front pad, the biggest of Australia’s quicks used every bit of his height and leverage to spit a brutal bouncer at Denly’s face, this time ending in Paine’s gloves via the edge. Indeed, the skipper had a big smile on his face before the ball reached him. He’s been around long enough to know the best way to stop the symptoms of drift – a wicket. According to CricViz, Hazlewood’s seven over shift was close to perfect with half his offerings landing in the sweet spot of an ideal line and length. The runs stopped, Lyon’s mojo returned. The only thing missing with another scalp.
Even so, the Australians go to bed knowing that unless history is defied almost entirely – in 2,355 Test matches in 142 years, there have been only 10 successful chases in excess of 350 – they will be marking a remarkable success story. Because of England’s grit, it won’t be like the eve of the 1993 Ashes retention on this ground where the home side followed on and finished, but that won’t matter so long as they stick this landing on Sunday. And when you see that celebration, you will know what it means to Australian cricket – everything.